It's been a little while since my last guest blog interview, but with lockdown lasting a little bit longer, I thought it's a great time to pick them up again.
My first interview this year was with animal behaviourist Helen Greenley of Creature Kind.
Keep reading, if you would like to know more about Helen and motivates her to help animals with behavioural issues. I promise it's worth it! (the photo was kindly provided by Helen)
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself
A. Well, I’m new here! We recently fulfilled a dream, by moving the 450 miles north, from Hertfordshire to Monymusk, between the two lockdowns. We’re looking forward to being able to get out and explore.
I grew up surrounded by animals - dogs, cats, donkeys, ponies, goats, guinea pigs, budgies… and have always had animals in my life. My husband fortunately understands and has gone along with numerous foster dogs coming to us for rehabilitation over the years, and encouraged me to take my passion and skills seriously, get qualified and make a career of it.
Q. How many dogs do you have? Tell us a bit about them
A. We are currently a single dog household, which is very unusual for us and hasn’t been the case for about 20 years. Once the garden is securely fenced, we’ll be looking for a new family member!
Bridget, aka Smidge, is our 5-year-old working cocker spaniel and is a super smart pocket-rocket. She throws herself into everything we do, but her favourite activities are gundog training and scent work. We’ve also trained parcours, hoopers and a bunch of skills and tricks, great for rainy day entertainment.
Likes – digestive biscuits, carrying socks around the house and hunting for critters
Dislikes – not much (she’s a glass-half-full kind of girl) but she doesn’t like rude pushy dogs!
Q. Tell us a surprising fact about yourself
A. Here’s 3! I originally qualified as a BHSAI (horse riding instructor), I collect antique eggs and I can wiggle my nose without moving my face.
Q. How did you come to be an animal behaviourist?
A. Rosie Lee, our first ‘dog with problems’, was a lab/collie cross from Ireland. Trying to help her, I realised that there was a lot of advice to be found, but that not all of it was any good!
Rosie was frightened of men, loud noises, vans, anything that moved quickly, other dogs and anyone holding something above her head. She was also a trusting soul once she felt safe with us, she loved a tennis ball and was very foody, so we were all set up to make life feel much safer for her. The good news is that despite making some mistakes along the way, I was able to resolve all of her issues over time, and she lived a long and happy life with us.
My experiences with Rosie inspired me to move from training to become qualified as a behaviourist and to do it properly. I was certain that I didn’t want to be giving out anecdotal or unhelpful advice and looked for the best training available – which led me to the University of Southampton, and the Post Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. This rigorous two-year course gave me the essential foundations to set up and run my own successful canine and feline behaviour referral practice, serving Hertfordshire and north London for 9 years before we moved up here.
Q. Could you please explain the difference between a trainer and a behaviourist?
A. First thing to note is that neither is better or more valid than the other. The roles require separate skill sets, but with a necessary overlap.
A really good trainer will have an inside-out understanding of learning theory and fluent practical training skills, but also an understanding of both human and animal behaviour, also ethics, and welfare.
A really good behaviourist will have a thorough education in ethology, learning theory, neuropsychology, pharmacology, ethics, welfare and human counselling skills, but also needs good practical training and handling skills.
In my opinion, there are three things that we can all do to make sure that, trainer or behaviourist, we offer the best service possible to our human clients and their animals;
Be aware of our limits. It takes humility and grace to know when the client in front of you would be better served by being referred to another practitioner, or by you teaming up with a more experienced professional to help them.
Treat the individual in front of us. There are no magic ‘recipes’, and it does no good to try to fit a round peg into a square hole. Each cat or dog has a unique genetic heritage, learning history and home environment, meaning that almost every treatment plan is different.
Provide non-judgmental support. Our human clients are never stupid and are generally doing the best they can. Often clients have already been given poor advice by someone else and are losing faith in the training and behaviour industry. What is needed is non-judgemental support and understanding from us in order to move forwards.
Q. What do you love most about your job?
A. It is hugely rewarding! I support owners not only in modifying the specific behaviour they are struggling with but also in learning to read body language, understanding canine and feline ethology, how dogs and cats learn and so on.
My favourite outcome is when owners take this knowledge and run with it, empowered to manage new behaviours appropriately, preventing small issues from becoming anything bigger.
I suppose my main goal is that my clients eventually won’t need me anymore! Not because I don’t love working with them, but because they really understand their pet and are better able to meet their needs.
Q. What top tips can you give dog owners?
A. Look for behaviour you like and reward it… Rather than focussing on what you don’t want, throw all your energies into nurturing and propagating behaviour you like! (Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated – it’s natural law, not my opinion, a bit like gravity). If you are not sure how to do this, find a positive trainer or behaviourist to help you.
Management is your friend… Manage the environment and your own behaviour to minimise unwanted behaviours and make it easy for the animal to do what you’d like. Practice makes perfect – dogs don’t ever stop ‘behaving’ they are always doing something, set them up to be successful and to practice the things you like.
Imagine a flower bed, left untended, it will soon be full of weeds that become harder and harder to get rid of. The more flowers we plant in that bed, the less space and nutrition in the soil there is for weeds.
Yes, punishment has an effect, but… Only because it gives the dog something bigger to worry about such as frustration, intimidation or pain. Punishment does not teach the dog what it is that we would like them to do instead.
Research tells us that aversive interactions between dog and owner, are linked to fearful and aggressive behaviour. Research also tells us that over 50% of behaviour problems have a medical issue as a contributing factor … how crappy does that make us, if we hit or shout at a dog that is doing its best whilst dealing with pain or impairment?
Much better for learning, and for your relationship with your dog, if we manage the environment to prevent incorrect responses (those pesky weeds!), put in the effort to train correct responses (lovely flowers!) and make these responses highly valuable to the dog (fertiliser? I may have taken this analogy too far!).
Learn to speak basic dog or cat… Your pet will tell you if they are frightened, in pain, frustrated, or loving life! Our animals are communicating all the time with their bodies, we are not always listening. Just learning the basics of canine or feline communication will set you up to respond more appropriately in the moment, make you a better trainer and owner and benefit your relationship with your pet.
Q. Would you like to add anything else?
A. I’d love to hear from owners if there is anything they would like to see a blog post on.
Q. How can people get in touch with you?
A. Via the contact form on the website www.creature-kind.co.uk, by email at email@example.com or call lovely Alison in the office on 07956 259149.
I’m not prolific on social media, but I do like to share things I think people will find useful, inspiring or funny, and of course pictures of Bridget! You can find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/forcreaturekind and Instagram at @creature.kind.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post, please do get in touch with Helen if you have any questions for her.
Let's get social! Find me on Social Media
Commercial: Iska Birnie Photography
LinkedIn: Iska Birnie